Northern Nigeria

Maryam Writes About Her Experience at Obama’s Fellowship for Young African Leaders

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Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Nigeria

Maryam Shehu Mohammed is one of the 500 young leaders selected from around Africa, to participate in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative in the U.S. She recently returned to Nigeria after the completion of her program. Maryam wrote about her experience through the entire process, from application to completion of the fellowship. Her piece was originally posted in Synopsis, a Facebook group we both belong to. I have reproduced it below, with her permission, and that of the group’s admin. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I am an unabashed supporter of YALI, warts and all. Yet, Maryam’s reflective article is sincere, constructively critical in some respects but overall, very appreciative of the experience and the lessons learnt. It is a long read, but should be worth your time.

MY YALI EXPERIENCE

It began here, on this page. Zainab Usman, bless her, posted a link on the Young African Leaders Initiative. I saw it, applied and shared with friends and colleagues. 1,500 of the 15,000 Nigerian applicants were called for the interview. 43 qualified. In total, there were 50,000 applicants but only 500 qualified. The US Embassy calls us the top 1%.

The Young African Leadership Initiative is the flagship program of the Obama Administration to hone leadership skills of African youth in their capacities either in Public Management, Civic Leadership or as Entrepreneurs. As part of the requirements of the application process, I wrote three essays on “An initiative I had and how I garnered support for it;” on “A problem in my Community, Country or Workplace” and how I wanted to resolve it and an essay on what “skills I had in addition to those I needed to make the required change.”

I was a bit conflicted regarding the track to choose because I am a Public Servant but have a strong leaning towards civic leadership. Public Management won, that was my first choice and that is what I got. The 500 Fellows were divided into batches of 25 to be hosted by 20 different Universities spread all over the states, each university specialising in one of the three tracks. The US Government would cover all expenses including feeding, accommodation, transportation, phone bills, we even had a mini health insurance in case of emergencies in addition to weekly stipend.

Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland was to be my host University for the six week academic session. Prior to my arrival, I’d received tons of emails and reading materials from the school to prepare for the classes. I had also received emails requiring that some vaccines must be taken before I was admitted to stay in their hostels and asking me to bring my sheets as the school would not provide same. The questions in the medical history form were so personal, (questions bordering on sexual behaviour, preference of partners…) I didn’t even know how to fill it. Reading materials flooded my inbox too.

I didn’t feel welcome at Morgan State, nor did the other 24 Fellows as MSU was challenged even before we arrived because even the welcome email was cold. They retracted their demand for African sheets but insisted on the vaccines. I didn’t take the vaccines, decided that if push came to shove, I’d take them there. Most of the Fellows that took the vaccinations reacted and were sick for a few days after our arrival. Upon my arrival, they didn’t ask, I didn’t say. Before I left Nigeria, my colleagues were calling my school “Morgan Military School”. Their schools wanted to know their interests, asking them to come with party clothes and swim gear; it was to be a fun experience for them. I arrived Baltimore with a sense of foreboding. Farouk (a Nigerian also) and I were received at the airport. We arrived to decent accommodation but I wasn’t provided with sheets! The issue of logistics was something that was sorted out within the course of our stay.

The food! We ate at the school canteen for the first two weeks, suffice it to say that the African appetite no resemble d oyinbo appetite at all. It was grease, fat and fries which we found too bland for our taste buds. Some of the canteen staff had a bad attitude, such that YALI Fellows would hardly ever say “no” to each other but would imitate a certain canteen staff who would say “unh unh baby”, moving her pointing finger from side to side and shaking her head from side to side. In my language, that would simply have been a “no ma’am.” We were told this about Bo’morians, “we rude, but we nice…” How rude can be nice, I’m yet to figure out.

The Course Content we received before we arrived was packed full. Classes on infrastructure, transportation, leadership, professional writing for public officials (my favourite), theory, practice and ethics in public administration, policy analysis, conference calls with US officers, interactive sessions with key officers from a Congressman (Elijah Cummings, I will never forget how powerful a speaker he was), the Liberian Foreign Minister, to the Mayor’s, to the Governor’s office to the US State Department. There were visits to the World Trade Center, the World Bank, National Security Agency, etc.

Within the first one week at MSU, we realised that there was a disconnect between the school and the program itself. The Academic Director ended up doing everything with little or no support from the school. While some of the facilitators came prepared to meet professionals to help in the direction of capacity building, others just assumed they were meeting some random students from Africa. The latter group always got a reality check after spending time with us.

I remember the first video we watched, it was a one hour video on Uganda’s President Museveni and Uganda’s animals (like an hour of watching National Geographic). Andrew (South Africa) walked out. I drew in my book, many others were on their phones. No one was interested. Anselm (Burkina Faso) captured the mood of the class when he told the facilitator that “I am an African, coming from Africa, I know lions and zebras and I know Museveni, I did not come to America to watch this kind of thing”. It gave the facilitator the chance to reorganise himself and re-evaluate the kind of content we expected him to provide for the class.

The next facilitator had a chance to read our diverse profiles, had meetings with us to discuss his content and our expectations. It gave a whole new insight to him and us. The second week was great! The sessions were deeply insightful, the sessions interactive, group work challenging and we felt the shift to a better ground. All this while the schools involvement had started manifesting, there were changes in the feeding arrangement for the better, IREX (Samantha and co) and the State Department (Elizabeth, Aimee and co) were always on ground to ensure that we got the best of our YALI experience and I had been given sheets.

The other weeks passed in a haze, (not without a drama or two) the highlights of my week always being the writing classes, but the best were the last two weeks where we were treated like the guests of the POTUS (President of the United States), thanks to Qimmah (MSU) and Aimee (IREX). Our diverse backgrounds were considered in scheduling classes/meetings, visits to hospitals (Johns Hopkins, Maryland Trauma Center etc) with a view to making meaningful connections.

Most of the people we met were more than willing to help out with information and direction. MSU became more involved. We visited the White House, the MSU President hosted us to dinner at his house, the Vice President African Affairs took everyone out to dinner, boat cruises, shopping sprees, tourism, fun… The highlight was the send-forth banquet – School choir (world renowned), excellent food, well attended and 5 certificates (from MSU, the Governor, Legislative Black caucus, two Councilmen) were given. It was a preamble to the certificate that crowned it all, one signed by the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

I learnt that the American style networking could mean meeting people in a semi dark crowded room with everyone holding a glass of wine. I was no good at it. Especially since the first thing I say when a hand is extended towards me for a handshake is “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands”. There’s always that profuse apology which makes the whole situation awkward and then… there goes the chance. Sometimes, I’d hold my ground and continue with the conversation, other times… I learnt the 30 second elevator speech and it helped, some.

Imagine being in a class with 24 super intelligent folks from 18 countries within Africa, all within the same age bracket (25-35) and all super achievers! There were doctors, lawyers, financial experts, economists, PPP experts, etc. There was harmony and there was chaos. There were really good times and there were times when the tension was thick. But above all, there was a mutual quest for learning, a collective demand for accountability especially regarding MSU living up to its expectations as a host University and a feeling of togetherness. We had fun, we were encouraged to have one to one discussions with each other which always made it easy to understand one another. We supported one another, teased each other, laughed and generally bonded as brothers and sisters. I miss them.

Sometimes, one needs to relate with a few others to be able to assess oneself. I’ve been described as “stern, serious, strict…” and have been advised to “remain the same, let loose a bit, let my hair down, suffer fools, speak up a little bit more, utilise the power I have in words and respect….”

The Presidential Summit in DC was the last leg of the Fellowship. It was simply amazing! All 500 Fellows were under one roof and like the royalty they treated us, we were treated to visits by Susan Rice, John Kerry, Michelle Obama and President Barrack Obama himself. I was in awe. And they kept telling us how much in awe of us they were. Fellows got presidential handshakes and hugs from the First Lady.

I’ve learnt so much from my YALI experience.
I learnt that as much as I think there is poverty in Nigeria, there is also poverty in America, there is stark poverty in Baltimore. Abandoned homes in thousands, and thousands of homeless people. Crime – it was not the safest of places as I’d been warned over and over again to always go out with someone and not to stay out too late. My veil/hijab always caused a lot of unwanted attention especially when I was on public transportation. The difference between them and us is that they have a system that is working. They have reliable statistics, they have the basic infrastructure and we don’t.

Some of the Nigerian YALI Fellows right before their departure to the U.S.

If we are disorganised, my first week at MSU told me that Americans can also be. One can’t prepare to host 25 young people without thinking of the basic things like towels, sheets, toilet paper, etc. I realised that what we went through in that first week was as a result of their problems as an institution. But towards the end, they rose up to the challenge and righted their wrongs. They did not want us to leave with a bad impression of the institution.

There were six Muslims in the class although not all of us fasted during Ramadan, (fasting lasted 18 hours each day). There was utmost consideration for us especially when we wanted to pray- if we were out for a function, there would always be take away packs for us, etc. I learnt that they are very tolerant, accommodating and respectful of differences. I met people who had never been as close to a Muslim woman as they were to me. It was a delight to answer their questions and explain how we saw things.

I learnt the importance of not having to be the one in the spotlight – a leader doesn’t always have to shine. Sometimes, you have more impact when you facilitate the change. Leadership is also not about how many times one is heard, but the impact one makes when one chooses to speak.
Our group at MSU taught me so much. I learnt a lot from studying, listening and observing. The group dynamics, the politicking, the tension when it came to choosing one speaker from the lot and the fact that getting one paper written between the 25 of us was to say the least, chaotic.

There was a lot of scepticism about YALI. Someone said to me, “when you go, they will indoctrinate you into one a fraternity”. I’m yet to be indoctrinated. I came back as someone that has learnt a lot from my fellow Fellows and from MSU. I got the exposure that I would never have gotten on my own, except on a platform like that. It was reemphasised that one must assert himself or herself to get some things done or changed. And one of the best lessons of all is in not accepting mediocrity, not in myself and not in what I am involved in.

Finally, I realised that it’s our complacency as a people, the fact that even when it’s not right, as long as it suits our purpose, we accept it that makes us remain in this quagmire that has become our nation. If only we could be a little more honest, a little more patriotic, a little more ashamed of stealing public funds and a little less selfish, if we can set aside our massive egos and materialism, maybe we might be better for it. No one will change us but us, no one will make our houses homes but us, not America and not President Obama. It’s entirely up to us.

Maryam Shehu Mohammed
Mandela Washington Fellow

‘Who Speaks for the North? Politics and Influence in Northern Nigeria’ by Chatham House

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The late Emir of Kano Dr. Ado Bayero, with English Prince Charles. Photo Credit: BBC News

The Royal Institute of International Affairs, aka Chatham House, recently released a report on northern Nigeria titled: “Who Speaks for the North? Politics and Influence in Northern Nigeria”. The report is an outcome of a research project by research fellow Dr. Leena Koni Hoffman, under the think tank’s Africa programme.

It was launched both in London, and very recently, in Abuja, Nigeria.

You can download the full report (in PDF) from the Chatham House website here.

Find below, the executive summary:

  • Northern Nigeria is witnessing an upheaval in its political and social space. In 1999, important shifts in presidential politics led to the rebalancing of power relations between the north of Nigeria and the more economically productive south. This move triggered the unprecedented recalibration of influence held by northern leaders over the federal government. Goodluck Jonathan’s elevation to the presidency in 2010 upended the deal made by the political brokers of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to rotate power between the north and south, from which the party had derived much of its unity.

  • The decisive role played by the power shift issue in 15 years of democracy raises important questions about the long-term effectiveness of the elite pacts and regional rotation arrangements that have been used to manage the balance of power between the north and the south. It also highlights the fragility and uncertainties of Nigeria’s democratic transition, as well as the unresolved fault lines in national unity as the country commemorates the centenary of the unification of the north and south in 2014.

  • The significance and complexity of challenges in northern Nigeria make determining priorities for the region extremely difficult. Yet overcoming the north’s considerable problems relating to development and security are crucial to the realization of a shared and prosperous future for all of Nigeria. Strong economic growth in the past decade has provided the government with the opportunities and resources to pursue thoughtful strategies that can address the development deficit between the north and the more prosperous south as well as creating greater political inclusion.

A cross section of Christian and Muslim leaders. Photo credit: Premium Times
  • When Sharia law was adopted in 12 northern Nigerian states many in the Muslim community envisioned this as a panacea for the complex and messy problems of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and political corruption. However, after the expansion of Sharia the unchanged circumstances of many who had celebrated its signing created even more anger and disaffection towards the state governments that had adopted the new laws. The disappointment with the implementation of Sharia opened up the north’s social space for extreme religious ideologies to be seeded and for older strands of radical Islamism to be revived.

  • Growing distrust in political leadership, a lack of government presence and chronic underdevelopment created the perfect context for radical groups to take root and flourish in northern Nigeria. Initially a fringe movement that believed in the strict observation of Sharia and providing social and financial help to poor Muslim families, Boko Haram was transformed into the most devastating threat to the northeast’s stability during the latter years of the last decade. The connectedness of today’s globalized world has allowed local extremists like Boko Haram to graft themselves into universalized debates on Muslim resistance to domination through Jihad in order to puff up their otherwise local profile.

  • Northern Nigeria’s political leaders, particularly the state governors, must move swiftly and strategically to deliver on repeated promises to invest in infrastructure, education and other social services, as well as encourage new sources of income for the region. Ultimately, the economy, security, stability and health of the north and south are intricately intertwined, and persistent violence and grinding poverty in any part of the country threaten the long-term progress of the whole.

The Appendix section maps out powerful individuals from the North, their personalities and their degree of influence. These include, former head of state General Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Namadi Sambo, Senate President David Mark, former Central Bank Governor Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and a host of others.

At just 20 pages, the publication is an easy read. Enjoy!

Thugs Disrupt Peaceful #BringBackOurGirls Protest

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It has been over a month since the abduction of over 200 school girls from a secondary school in Chibok Borno state in Northern Nigeria. Since that time, protests have erupted in several cities across Nigeria, and around the world under the banner of #BringBackOurGirls. Influential politicians, global figures and celebrities have lent their support The protests started from Abuja, and have been ongoing.

I have attended several of the sit-outs in Abuja. Yet, today, things took a completely different turn. Scores of women wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with #ReleaseOurGirls and thugs disrupted the usually peaceful sit-out in Abuja. Several local Nigerian media had previously reported that the #ReleaseOurGirls protesters were meant to counter the narrative of #BringBackOurGirls which had put the government under national and international scrutiny.

From around 5pm, things started happened at a dizzying pace. All I could remember was that several angry young men, some of them in red t-shirts began yelling and hurling insults. Suddenly, they were confiscating cameras and mobile phones, pushing and shoving people, grabbing and breaking plastic chairs all at once. It was frightening.

Surprisingly, the over 50 policemen who were there to contain any disturbance stood by idly and did nothing as the hired goons went on a rampage. We were all told to huddle close together, not cave in, and then we broke into solidarity songs until the thugs left us alone. Eventually some of the police men reluctantly took away away one or two of the thugs.

Everything happened really fast, and I barely managed to capture this short video of the disruption:

Some photos I took as well:

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So, who ‘sponsored’ these guys?

Maybe the answer lies in this picture of the vehicles and equipment used by the #ReleaseOurGirls hirelings:

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Boko Haram and a Nation Gripped By Fear

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In most cultures of the world, a word exists for a frightening creature or the bogey man. In Hausa for instance, it is the dodo. A fiendish entity, other-worldly, yet beastly in its aggression and human in its scheming prowess, the dodo lurks, stalks and terrorises. Stories of the bogey man are used strategically by parents to whip misbehaving children back into line, because no one knows quite what the bogeyman is – it is everything and nothing.

In Nigeria’s North-East, the heart of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency, the bogeyman may have traversed the realm of fantasy into cold reality. Boko Haram militants lurk at night, to murder school children while they sleep. In the last few days, we have been held spellbound by the brutality unleashed on defenseless school children in Borno and Yobe. 43 young people were killed in the attack on a secondary school in Buni Yadi, Yobe. About 20 female students were abducted by the militants from a school in Konduga, Borno.

Survivors have recounted spine-chilling stories of dormitories set on fire and of escapees gunned down. The few that evaded gun fire were chased, and slaughtered like cattle. Photos of charred remains of adolescents and of bodies drenched in blood from sliced throats and bullet wounds have flooded the Internet. The massacres occur daily. The bogeyman has come to life – it spares no one in its violent wake.

Naked fear is firmly embedded into the spines of most. The fear in part stems from the realisation that regardless of class or economic status, no one is safe. The ‘unknown gunmen’ who routinely terrorise others are hardly ever caught and prosecuted. The murders of prominent citizens such as Bola Ige, Saudatu Rimi and Sheikh Jafar are yet to be resolved years after, not to mention crimes against faceless and nameless ‘commoners’ in Bama or Baga. The Police, the Civil Defense Corps and the Army seem to be out-gunned, out-motivated and over-whelmed. In a country with massive economic and social inequalities, this collective insecurity is one area where all Nigerians are equal.

Mostly, this fear comes from confronting a deadly enemy which appears fluid, formless and extremely vengeful – a bogeyman. Boko Haram is a rapidly changing, complex and fragmented movement. Its doctrine is as fast changing as it is contradictory – anti-democracy, anti-secularism, and anti-establishment. Yet it liberally employs internet enabled smartphones and other tools of modernity and western education to perpetrate attacks. Any criticism of the group’s approach by ordinary citizens, Imams or traditional rulers in the North draws a swift and vicious response.

The eccentric pre-2009 hermetic ragtag sect, avenging the death of their slain leader Muhammad Yusuf from 2010, have quickly metamorphosed into a highly sophisticated terrorist group with deep local and global networks. From laying siege on police stations and army checkpoints, they have attacked churches, brothels, prominent Islamic clerics, mosques, northern traditional rulers and now they’ve added the murder of helpless school children to a blood-drenched résumé. It’s difficult to project what tactics they will adopt next.

So little credible information about the group is available. Boko Haram itself thrives on secrecy. The Army bragged about the leader, Abubakar Shekau’s death in August 2013 only for his taunting videos to resurface shortly. Whenever an evident victory is proclaimed by the authorities, a more daring attack is perpetrated. The insurgency has become like the monster in Greek mythology, Scylla – when one head is sliced off, three more sprout up in its stead. As the rise of the ‘yan Gora or the Civilian Joint Task Force – the youth vigilante fishing out suspected insurgents from the community – is celebrated, Boko Haram ferociously retaliates against such communities working with the authorities.

Where little information is available, speculation thrives. Where speculation is rife in the midst of unbridled fear about a formless enemy, conspiracy theories fill the gap. In Nigeria, these conspiracy theories are as numerous as they are destructive: Boko Haram is a creation of “disgruntled northern politicians to destabilise Goodluck Jonathan’s government”. “Boko Haram is a creation of the Federal Government in Abuja to destroy the North for political advantage”. The group “is a creation of the West to fulfill their prediction of a disintegrated Nigeria by 2015″. Some of these toxic opinions neatly overlap with people’s innate prejudices particularly in the wake of the divisive 2011 elections.

While these conspiracy theories are mostly ludicrous, anecdotes of suspicious events give them weight. According to the Yobe state governor, the soldiers guarding the school in Buni Yadi were mysteriously withdrawn from their duty posts a few hours before. The traditional ruler of Bama bemoaned that while the town was sacked and torched over several hours in February, frantic efforts to call local Police and Army chiefs were futile as they were all mysteriously unavailable. Ground troops, whose courage must be appreciated, are known to be severely under equipped relative to the sophisticated weaponry carried by Boko Haram despite the almost one trillion naira allocated to security in the national budget.

Most troubling is that recently, Reno Omokri, the President’s Special Assistant on New Media was identified as the author of a malicious article falsely alleging that the ‘suspended’ Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido is a Boko Haram financier. Many such unexplained events have planted suspicion in the minds of many in the North-East, and allow for dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.

A Screen Shot showing the article and the author details. Source: Feyi Fawehinmi on Twitter @doubleEph

The reality is that fighting such an entrenched insurgency anywhere will be a grueling and bloody war of attrition. The difficult experiences of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, despite being a highly militarised super power are instructive. In this trying period, it is necessary to ensure that some semblance of national cohesion against the insurgency exists.

For a start, genuine efforts must be made at restoring the trust of residents in the North-East in the Federal Government. Symbolic gestures by the President to sincerely console victims of brutal murders would alleviate some of the widespread sense of alienation in the region. Greater efforts must be made to address lapses and incompetence by the security agencies in order to lay conspiracy theories to rest. Proper investigations of leakages in the security infrastructure must be made to understand why combat troops in the firing line are under-paid and under-equipped. President Jonathan must as a matter of urgency, take decisive and punitive action against the despicable act of his aide- Reno Omokri, failure of which would send the message that the frame up attempt was sanctioned by the Presidency.

Finally, Nigerians must be commended for the resilience and the solidarity in expressing collective outrage in the wake of the recent escalation of violence in the entire North-East. Despite the prevalence of fear and the sense of helplessness, we must have faith that Nigeria will somehow endure and emerge stronger from this all.

Thoughts on Nasir El-Rufai’s “The Accidental Public Servant”

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Paperback and kindle editions available on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Publication Date: February 2013

ISBN-10: 1481967401

ISBN-13: 978-1481967402

“…to put on record my version of events…” is one of the reasons Nasir El-Rufai puts forward for writing his provocative autobiography, The Accidental Public Servant. It’s a book which could easily tie with Chinua Achebe’s memoirs, as the most debated in Nigeria’s recent history. Flipping through the pages, it was apparent that readers could choose to either verify or refute El-Rufai’s version of events in government, or appreciate its rare insight into the intricacies of Nigeria’s fourth democratic experience. I opted for the latter.

As the title suggests, the overall theme of the book revolves around the intriguing journey of an individual from very humble beginnings in an idyllic post-independence era, in a rural part of Katsina, northern Nigeria, to occupying one of the highest public offices in 21st century Nigeria. The reader glimpses into how El-Rufai’s fiercely independent, resolute, feisty and cerebral personality evolves from the tragedy of his father’s passing, the calculated attrition against Sunday, the primary school bully, the role-model influence of his brother in his early years and becoming a self-made private sector millionaire by his mid-twenties (p.36).

The “accidental” part of El-Rufai’s journey begins, from the age of 38 with his reluctant entry in government in 1998 as an adviser for the military government of Abdulsalam Abubakar. It continues through to his appointment as the Director-General of the main privatisation agency, the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) and then as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, and his membership of the elite corps of economic reformers between 2003 and 2007.

Along the way, lifelong friendships are built and broken, alliances are forged and betrayed and the gruelling challenge of public service and reform in the midst of entrenched practices and powerful vested interests takes its toll. He strives to balance public and personal interests with loyalties as he gets caught in the middle of altercations between a strong-willed President Olusegun Obasanjo and his equally powerful Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. At the height of these disagreements, El-Rufai inadvertently rises to a defacto Vice-President, a position which would ironically lead to his persecution and exile less than a year after leaving public office.

A refreshing aspect of the book is the revelation and demystification of the inner-workings of the highest levels of governance in Africa’s most populous country. For instance, El-Rufai stresses how appointments for the highest public offices, are mostly fortuitous, having little to do with meritocratic or rigorous processes. His narration of events during his first few days as FCT minister (p.199), what to expect after a ministerial nomination, the obstructive tactics of entrenched civil servants opposed to reform are insightful and invaluable details that offer a useful departure from textbook political theory or international ‘best practice.’

In particular, the author’s revelation that without a coherent plan, a new and mostly unprepared government minister could easily drown in administrative routine attending to “more than 100 visitors and 200 phone calls” daily for the duration of their tenure, is instructive (p.201). He discusses the immense influence such appointees wield and how they become devastated when they leave office, once the lucrative perks of office are withdrawn and the “hundreds of phone calls a day… drop to near zero” the very next day (p.393)! These are valuable disclosures for the younger generation planning to go into public service.

El-Rufai also underscores the absolute importance of political will by a president in effecting key reforms. With Obasanjo’s backing, the residence of the powerful chairman of the ruling party was demolished as part of the restoration of the FCT master plan (p.296) and a number of seemingly impossible tasks are implemented seamlessly. The reader thus gets a glimpse into Obasanjo’s ambivalent approach to governance: a wilful, ex-military leader, with an eye for good people, an ear for good advice and a vision for Nigeria despite his links with vested interests and rentier elite, but who was unfortunately consumed by his vindictiveness and narrow ambitions to run for a third term in office. The reader is likely to come off with a better informed and more respectable view of The Obasanjo personality.

El-Rufai also rightly reflects on a fundamental yet overlooked implication of the decline of Nigerian public education and constituent alumni networks which are critical to leadership and elite incubation (p.42-43).  He stresses how friendship and alumni networks in Barewa College and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria proved useful in several instances in his life and in public service. He laments that the decline of hitherto elitist public institutions mean that their local and important alumni networks such as the Barewa Old Boys Association are now unavailable to foreign-educated Nigerians, his own children inclusive.

However, the scant mention of the highly controversial NITEL-Pentascope privatisation controversy is quite conspicuous. This is especially since El-Rufai studiously accounts for the key hallmarks and controversies of his stewardship of the BPE and the FCT Ministry. While the author does state that a full account of the NITEL saga would come in a BPE monograph (p.128), most readers would have appreciated at least a few paragraphs devoted to this contentious issue.

The author’s approach of divulging the inner workings of governance at the highest levels, and naming and shaming the key players irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliation is truly refreshing. Yet in a few instances, there’s a nagging feeling that he probably divulged too much. This ranges from revealing verbatim, some conversations which held in strict confidence to the extremely personal details about meeting and marrying his subsequent wives.

Notwithstanding, the rare insight El-Rufai provides into the highest echelons of power, politics and decision-making in Nigeria is unprecedented. The heated debate sparked by the book should prompt other key actors to document their own version of events, ultimately to the betterment of Nigerians outside the tight power circle. For Nasir El-Rufai the successful entrepreneur, technocrat, exiled student and now leading opposition politician, one can only wonder what the future holds.

Favourite Quote:

“Some mosques in particular consistently condemned me and prayed for my downfall. One or two declared me an apostate for daring to demolish a mosque, conveniently forgetting that Prophet Muhammad ordered the demolition of an illegal mosque in Madina Al-Munawwarah, some 1,400 years earlier. Many  of the affected ‘churches’ prayed that “by God’s grace, El-Rufai will go down, El-Rufai will lose his job, El-Rufai will die in Jesus’ name.” I was there for nearly four years and we removed all of them.” (p.212)

The Burka Avenger “fights” the Taliban in Pakistan

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The Burka Avenger. Photo credit: Human Rights Watch

 

Culled from Aljazeera:

“She is called the Burka Avenger and is like no other superhero before her.

By day she is a Pakistani school teacher, but by night the secret martial arts expert dresses in a veil while fighting bad guys  (who want to shut down schools).

The animated children’s series is about to hit TV screens across Pakistan.”

This is a potentially effective form of positive indoctrination and soft approach to fighting terrorism and extremism in a society. Given the numerous similarities between northern Nigeria and Pakistan in this regard, perhaps northern Nigeria also needs its own version of the Burka/Hijab Avenger to fight the Boko Haram baddies.

Malala Yousafzai’s Phenomenal Speech at the UN

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This is a video of the courageous Malala Yousafzai delivering a phenomenal speech at the UN Youth Assembly earlier today. Malala is the teenage education activist in Pakistan who recently survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban.

I was moved by her strength and passion, especially when I recalled how dozens of innocent school children were viciously murdered by terrorists in northern Nigeria recently.

For added symbolic effect, Malala delivered the powerful speech whilst wearing a shawl that belonged to the late Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Some excerpts:

The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead, they shot my friends too… They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died, strength, power and courage was born

…and…

“Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism”

Quote of the Week: General Theophilus Danjuma

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“The masses of our people are chained down in dehumanizing and grinding poverty while we continue to maintain few islands of false prosperity in a turbulent ocean of penury and squalor… There cannot be peace and harmony where there is wide disparity between the few rich and a multitude of the poor”

This is an excerpt from a former Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff, General Theophilus Danjuma’s (rtd) speech, at a traditional turbaning ceremony. His statement, which was in reference to Nigeria in general and northern Nigeria in particular, could easily apply to a number of African countries.

The Story that Got an Al-Jazeera West Africa Team Arrested

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On Saturday 15 June, the Al-Jazeera West Africa correspondent Yvonne Ndege, and her 3-man crew were arrested in Niger. According to information posted on the Al-Jazeera website:

The team was initially detained at around 9.00 (GMT) on Saturday, questioned, and asked to hand over the material from a story they were filming about refugees.

The four were then interrogated for about ten hours before being officially arrested and charged with espionage, with no evidence being presented to support the charges.

…the authorities confiscated the team’s passports, filming equipment and personal belongings before putting them in a shared cell without food or water.

On Sunday, the Attorney General said that there was no evidence against them and the team was free to go, while the police headquarters said the filmed footage was cleared for release.

Within an hour of this order being given, the team was detained again without charge and the filming equipment was once again confiscated.

The team was eventually released, according to Premium Times:

“The four-person team was released late on Monday evening without charge to make way back to the border into Nigeria,” Kevin Kriedmann, a spokesperson of Aljazeera disclosed in a press release early Tuesday.

As for the reason behind their arrest, The Washington Post reports the team was arrested on charges by the Nigerien government that they failed to get proper accreditation:

Niger’s government spokesman said the group was filming illegally, having entered the country with only a visa. Journalists in Niger are required to also apply for an authorization from the ministry of communication, said spokesman Marou Amadou, who is also the country’s justice minister. He denied that the team had been held, saying only that their material was seized and inspected.

However, the reason for the detention may not be unconnected with the story the Al-Jazeera team was covering, about thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into Niger, from neighbouring Nigeria. The Nigerian government declared a State of Emergency on 14 May and launched a military operation to flush out the Boko Haram insurgents in their stronghold states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.  Borno state in particular shares a border with Niger.

Here is the first footage of the reportage by Al-Jazeera on the refugees in Niger:

So far, Al-Jazeera is one of the few media agencies (among both local and international media) that has covered the plight of refugees fleeing these areas. Mobile communication networks have been switched off in these states since the military operation started, and thus, there’s little information coming out, and the little that does, is heavily controlled and determined by the Nigerian Army.

What I find more disturbing is the Nigerian government’s hasty dismissal of these refugees as citizens of Niger “fleeing” back to their country, and not Nigerians, even though it is common knowledge that when conflict erupts in an area, the residents tend to leave for somewhere safer until the conflict abates.  Agence France Presse (AFP) has also reported on the plight of Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, fleeing the military offensive in the North-East.

This hasty dismissal by the Nigerian government, along with the knee-jerk response by the Nigerien authorities confounds the situation further.

Boko Haram Rejects Amnesty Offer: Now What?

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“Mr Shekau said his group had done no wrong and so an amnesty would not be applicable to them.

It was the Nigerian government that was committing atrocities against Muslims, he said.

“Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done? On the contrary, it is we that should grant you [a] pardon,” AFP news agency quotes him as saying in the Hausa language audio recording.” 

Read the full report on the BBC News website

Of course, this was to be expected and sadly, many of us “observers” were just waiting for this. Boko Haram NEVER requested or plead for amnesty, it has no use for it whatsoever. You don’t need a sophisticated anti-terrorism profiler from Mossad to tell you that Boko Haram thrives on and draws its strength from the fear it inflicts on those commanding the machinery of government and the people, in seeking its “vengeance” (however warped that quest for vengeance is). Amnesty as it stands, would rob it of its lifeblood (its ability to inflict fear and terror). By default, Boko Haram is wired to reject this offer, as it has.  Now what?

This phase of the Boko Haram insurgency against the Nigerian state and the offer of amnesty by the government is analagous to two people, Mr. A. and Mr. B., engaged in bloody physical combat with Mr. A gaining the upper hand against Mr. B. Upon realising how imminent his defeat is, Mr. B., proclaims in between steely punches smashing his face “I forgive you Mr. A., I grant you amnesty”. Of course at this point, Mr. A will realise how powerful he has become, and simply finish off Mr. B.

I have keenly followed the pro- and anti- amnesty debate over the past two weeks or so in Nigeria. I found it all rather confounding, disturbing, distracting and absolutely pathetic! The debate got so heated and was as usual, unnecessarily politicised by both sides. I actually supported the President’s initial position of “not granting amnesty to faceless ghosts” because Boko Haram did not request for it, has insisted that it doesn’t recognise the authority of the Nigerian state (not to mention its feeble amnesty offer) and has continued butchering innocent Nigerians. However, President Jonathan was cajoled and bullied by SOME northern leaders into offering the amnesty.

On the other side of the divide, even those who genuinely and naïvely assumed that an amnesty offer would be the magical elixir to solve this bloody insurgency quagmire, were viciously painted by vociferous anti-amnesty voices as Boko Haram “sympathisers”. Now Boko Haram has flipped the bird or as we Nigerians call it, did the “uwaka” sign to us all, by rejecting it!

Photo credit: amebor.com

Personally, I am more incensed at the folly of SOME of the proponents of amnesty and their gross inability to see how this would play out. I say a big Thank You for giving the world the opportunity once again, to laugh at your sheer recklessness. So, what next then? Start begging Boko Haram or bribe them with Hajj pilgrimage or Dubai trip offers?

The baby steps towards a sustainable solution should be clear and visible. In my opinion — based on my humble observations and from general discussions — I believe they include:

  1. Implementation of recommendations of several reports by various commissions and committees set up, on this insurgency. Most of these reports have concrete recommendations proposed by committee members who are in the know, yet they have been dumped somewhere. Go back, pick them up, and start working from the recommendations, if they haven’t been eaten by dust mite that is. If the Federal Government seems unwilling or keeps dragging its foot, our “esteemed” and opinionated northern elders clearly have their advocacy work cut out for them;
  2. The JTF needs to stop killing innocent people and thereby providing a ready supply of recruits and suicide bombers to Boko Haram from a pool of angry, spiteful, vengeful and disillusioned orphans. The logic here is so ridiculously simple and apparent: the more you kill fathers in the presence of their impressionable teenagers and brutalise innocent young men, the more likely the victims are to fall into the willing embrace of Boko Haram or just refuse to help the government. Government needs to realise the pivotal role of winning the hearts and minds of people caught in the midst of all this, and denying Boko Haram any sort of popular support;
  3. In addition to spreading fear through its carnage, Boko Haram primarily thrives on spreading its warped and twisted ideology to angry, frustrated and hungry Nigerians. Its ideology needs to be countered by Muslim clerics all over the country, especially in northern Nigeria. Already, we have people like Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, who, despite his sometimes controversial statements, has come down hard on the sect, and because of that, he has been the target of several bomb-assassination attempts. Importantly this de-radicalisation needs to filter down to the grassroots, and shouldn’t be restricted to the elitist spheres such as the Sultan Bello mosque in Kaduna or the Indimi mosque in Maiduguri. The real recruitment takes place in inner-city districts, slums, suburbs and rural areas. This is where some of our noisy northern leaders could be helpful, rather than bullying the President to offer a hollow and meaningless amnesty, they should (if they are doing so already) continue convincing local imams in every street mosque and district, to preach fearlessly against this radical ideology, with credible evidence from the Holy Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), to expose the flaws in the ideological basis of Boko Haram and hopefully turn some of its members against it;
  4. There might still be a chance for amnesty… but there has to be a different approach. Again related to (1) above, the government (Federal and States) should go back to those reports and their recommendations, importantly, to start prosecuting perpetrators especially those in the security agencies responsible for extra-judicial killings of innocent citizens. This might be a highly contested approach but yes, start by prosecuting the killers of Mohammed Yusuf and others, which Boko Haram has frequently cited as the reason for its war against the Nigerian state. Prosecution of these erring officers might draw whatever humanity is left in some of the sect members to the negotiating table.

Lastly, the main problem with Nigeria, as is evident from this insurgency is that of sheer and criminal impunity. People steal, plunder, rape, murder and do everything under the sun, yet they are allowed to get away with it. This not only sets a precedent for other members of society to do same or worse, but it leaves victims with malicious grievances and a thirst for vengeance. Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s alleged founder was brutally murdered (captured by the lens of Aljazeera’s cameras), the perpetrators are still walking about freely. The various suspects of church, market, mosque and school bombings are still walking about freely. Soldiers who have snuffed the life out of innocent citizens are still walking about freely. This breeds nothing but hateful grievances while the cycle of bloodletting continues. In the case of the sect, Jama’atul ahlul Sunna Wal-Liddawati wal Jihad, or Boko Haram, it is quenching its thirst for vengeance with the blood of innocents and this is what needs to stop.