Archive for April 2007

Your Excellencies, Nigerian kids are knocking on your doors

April 30, 2007

Published: Sunday, 29 Apr 2007

Congratulations, our dear President and governors-elect, on your recent landslide victories at the polls. Soon, you will move over to your official quarters to assume duties. Although some observers put question marks on your successful outing; albeit some of you are perceived to be stooges and godsons of some garrison commanders, something tells me that you will spring surprises and shame your detractors. Already, many Nigerians are eagerly waiting for May 29. They have designed a special prayer to usher you into office. We shall come back to this prayer.

But first, let’s look at one major issue parents will want you to tackle as soon as you mount your thrones. It has to do with some requests from Nigerian children. These requests became more apparent during my recent visit to a primary school in Blaina, a village in Wales.

Seven international scholars had visited the school at the instance of the British Council to enlighten the pupils about other cultures. The scholars are from Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Fiji, Iraq and Brunei. Most of the children, we were made to understand, have never stepped out of their village. Hence, they are always desirous to see and learn about other cultures. On our way, the picture in my mind’s eye was a dilapidated school with some ugly-looking children playing away their time. But when we got to the place, the question on everybody’s lips was, “is this the village school?”

Your Excellencies, telling you that there is nothing rural about this so-called village may be stating the obvious. After all, you are well travelled and some of your kids may be in the best of schools abroad. It may also not surprise you to know that the structure and facilities in this village primary school can compare with facilities in the best university in Nigeria. Most of the classrooms in the school are equipped with at least two computers, a projector and different children’s books. Also, there are reading rooms, a library and two large Information and Communication Technology rooms equipped with many new DELL computers and printers. There are different classrooms for children with special needs.

What surprised us and may be of interest to you is that this is a public school. And there is no school fee, no sports fee, and no lunch fee. Everything is free. You can also see enthusiasm and commitment radiating in the teachers. One of them, Ms Joan Price, says all the facilities they enjoy are paid from people’s taxes.

At a point, each of us went to different classrooms to interact with the kids. We told them about our countries, our people and cultures. Typical of children, they innocently asked questions that made some of us laugh and think as well. Some of them asked, “Do you have Internet and TV in your country? What type of food do you eat? Do you have beaches, coconut and banana trees? Do you have dangerous roads?”

Of course, I painted a beautiful picture of Nigeria. I told the kids that we had Internet and TVs; and that most Nigerians watched CNN, BBC, Sky News and other international stations in their living rooms. I told them that our roads were not dangerous, except for a few potholes here and there. I told them that the major difference between their country and ours was our constant sunshine as against their constant cold weather. The harsh sun, I said, was what had blackened our skin. After stuffing their little brains with the beautiful images of Nigeria, I asked how many of them would like to visit Nigeria in the near future. All hands went up. Satisfied that I have done my patriotic duty, I left.

But, even as I laboured to satisfy these curious little minds, certain images of Nigeria played some games in my mind. I remembered the violence and deaths that trailed the elections we just had. I remembered how my wife (who just came back to Nigeria from the UK), recently woke me up very late in the night with a phone call. For some seconds after I picked the call, I heard nothing except the cry of my one-year-old son, Ebube. And then, the woman fumed, “This is what we witness every night. We don’t sleep anymore. Heat is killing us and there is no electricity to put on fan. I have no option now but to put on generator every night. If you see Ebube’s skin now (referring to heat rashes) you will cry. In fact, you will cry any day you come back to this country after that long stay in the UK.”

Sadly, millions of Nigerian children cry like Ebube every night. The unlucky ones die from preventable diseases everyday. Malaria, in particular, kills a child every 30 seconds. The disease, the World Health Organisation says, is stalling development in Africa. And since the noise about roll back malaria started a few years ago, I do not know how many mosquitoes the programme has rolled back to wherever they came from.

Happily, the outgoing Minister for Education, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili, recently joined to amplify the cry of the children. She has cried about the state of Nigerian public schools. A few days ago, she was also reported to have called on all governors-elect to declare a state of emergency in their public school system. Ezekwesili was not happy that the report of an inspection of all public secondary schools in the country last year scored the best performing state 32 per cent. Most states were said to have scored below 15 per cent.

The rot in our school system disturbed noble minds in February when some female students in primary and secondary schools protested to Ezekwesili over sexual harassment. The students urged the minister to let male teachers know that they came to school to learn, not to be sexually harassed and intimidated.

Your Excellencies, these are some of the requests of Nigerian children. Please do not disappoint them by shutting the doors against them. If only you can join Ezekwesili in her national cry, the kids’ problems will be half solved. Be assured that Nigerians are fervently praying for you. They wish that May 29 were today so that you can immediately begin to correct the deluge of problems besetting our fatherland. Their recent prayer, as graciously forwarded to me by my younger brother, says it all: “Our Baba who art in Aso Rock. Balogun of Owu is thy name. Thy handover shall soon come. Thy will has been done in Umaru and Goodluck. Leave us this May 29th, your departure date. Lead us not into anarchy. Forgive Turaki his disloyalty as we forgave your failed third term plot. Deliver him from INEC hammer for Otta is thy destination, with all that is thine, thy bag and thy baggage, forever and ever, just go ooo. Amen!”

Big issues in UK and Nigeria’s elections

April 23, 2007

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 22 Apr 2007

You will find them in most street corners in Cardiff. What distinguishes them is their shout of “big issue, big issue”. For long, I had wondered what this big issue was. But recently, I got to realise that it is the title of a magazine the government gives some unemployed people to sell and make some money. And so, when a middle aged man clutching what looked like Big Issue approached me the other day in Cardiff, I murmured, “Ah! This Big Issue people again.”

But, the man was not selling Big Issue. He was distributing some leaflets containing big issues of a different hue. And what caught my attention was the picture of an unseen hand cutting a 20 note with a scissors. The pound, as you know, has the face of Queen Elizabeth. On top of the picture was the phrase, “Cut the waste”. I thought the message must be a call for the abolition of the British monarchy. Or something close to that. I quickly collected the leaflet.

When I looked further down, what I saw was, “Abolish the Welsh Assembly & leave the EU (European Union). Vote UKIP on May 3rd.” Campaigns. Elections. These are some of the big issues in the UK at the moment. They are also big issues in Nigeria. But while we maim and kill each other in our campaigns and elections in Nigeria; while we disenfranchise our own citizens and place unnecessary stumbling blocks to the smooth running of our electoral system, the UK is having smooth issue-based campaigns and even empowering foreigners living in the country to vote.

Here are some examples. UKIP (UK Independence Party) feels that sacking the 60-member Welsh Assembly and selling its imposing building at Cardiff Bay will be saving Welsh taxpayers millions of pounds. The party also stands for scrapping the smoking ban and slashing council tax by 40 per cent. It also intends to regain strict control of immigration.

Central to the campaign issues of the Welsh Liberal Democrats is the fate of the National Health Service. Recently, the party slipped its campaign leaflet embossed with my name and address into my house. Labour (the ruling party in Britain), the leaflet says, “Have made a mess of our NHS. Waiting lists are still a problem, and many services are being cut. Welsh Lib Dems want to let doctors and nurses make decisions within our health service without political meddling.” Some other parties such as the Welsh Conservatives and the Green Party have their own manifestos.

The Assembly elections will come up on May 3 this year. So far, I have not seen political thugs in any dogfight. Nor have I heard gutter languages against political opponents. I am yet to see any group sharing rice, salt or money. You may say nobody has approached me with such offers because I am not a citizen. Far from it. In fact, I have already received my official poll card. The card contains information concerning the election my registration number, electoral region, constituency, polling day, polling station and polling hours. The card was sent directly to my house. I didnt queue to register anywhere. How the Returning Officer got my details and those of other Cardiff residents is best known to him.

On the card, the Returning Officer indicated that he had made every effort to ensure that the polling station met the access needs of people with a range of disabilities. He also noted that one could apply for a proxy vote and a postal vote. In the event of a medical emergency, he added, he might grant an emergency proxy vote if a completed application form was received by 5.00pm on the Election Day.

In my own country, I might not have had this opportunity to vote. Many factors would have conspired to disenfranchise me. As witnessed in the last registration exercise, one might queue up for days without being registered. It’s either that the registration materials might not be enough or there might not be any official to do the registration. Some politicians could even hijack materials meant for my ward to their houses. And nothing would have happened to them because they are garrison commanders.

In any case, my people would have probably urged me to either come back or send my family home. This is because they wouldnt want us to be caught up in an electoral conflagration in a foreign land called Lagos. And I couldnt have given any excuse because our dear President gave a two-day public holiday for people to travel for the April 14 elections.

Since the big issues and slogans in the run-up to the elections were do-or-die affair; the death and resurrection of candidate Umoru; the qualification and disqualification of Ifeanyi Araraume and Chris Ngige; and the Atiku-must-not- contest manifesto of the ruling party, I would have distanced myself from the charade. The only reason I would have come out on the Election Day would have been to monitor the poll as my job demands. If you call me a coward, then consider what befell some states like Anambra, Rivers and Edo. Hoodlums and party thugs killed scores of people. The army and the police in combat gear were on full alert. In spite of this, aggrieved parties torched some police stations and Independent National Electoral Commissions offices. It was war by another name.

At the end of the gubernatorial elections, some are smiling; some are gnashing their teeth. In Anambra State, the powers that be have succeeded in foisting Andy Uba on the people. They disqualified the other big contenders, whisked Chris Uba (Andy’s estranged younger brother) to Abuja and cleared the coast for him to win.

In the next few weeks, he will likely be sworn in as the Executive Governor of Anambra State. The big issue that may follow will be litigations by the other embittered candidates. And that is when Uba’s propaganda machine will be in full swing, telling the people why the man is their best choice. I guess my friend and colleague, Chuks Akunna, is equal to the task. He was the Chief Press Secretary when Ngige, as the governor, was battling with Chris Uba and some powerful Abuja forces. Now, he is the press secretary to Andy Uba. He will likely put his wealth of experience to bear on this new job. I wish him well.

Already, Uba has accepted his election. His Excellency, as his cronies will be addressing him now, has urged aggrieved persons to support him for the sake of the state, her children and generations unborn. Good luck to him. I wish Anambra well. I wish Ondo State well. I wish Edo people well. Nigeria will surely get better. One day, somebody, somewhere, will emerge to put a stop to all this nonsense. That is my sincere hope.

Much ado about UK rats

April 15, 2007

Published: Sunday, 15 Apr 2007

About 80 mice travelled with human beings on a Saudi plane late last year. Media reports indicated that the local flight was about 28, 000 feet when the mice suddenly started scurrying around the cabin. Some fell on the heads of the fear-gripped passengers. The rodents, it was later discovered, escaped from the bag of a fellow traveller. The aircraft, though, landed safely.

This mice owner should thank his stars that this incident did not happen in Britain. He would have just gone straight to jail. Brits, more than any group of people, perhaps, loathe seeing these rodents in their land. This may be why I have never seen mice or rats since I came to Cardiff in September last year. Nor have I seen cockroaches. Occasionally, I see flies. I was almost beginning to believe that such rodents and insects were not meant to survive the harsh British weather until I started reading about them in the media.

Late last year, for instance, a court reportedly fined Tesco, the largest supermarket in the UK, £14, 000 (about N3.5m) over an infestation of mice at its store in Northamptonshire. The court also ordered the company to pay costs of £5, 300 (about N1.325m). Environmental health officers were said to have discovered the mice infestation in May 2005 after a tip-off.

Similarly, a Southwark Crown Court, in 2004, was said to have fined a supermarket chain, Safeway, £33,500 (about N8.375m) after mouse droppings and urine were found in one of its stores in Hackney, east London. The judge, Andrew Goymer, was quoted as saying that companies must take seriously their responsibility to prevent rodent infestation.

In yet another serious episode, three food firms in Hull were forced to close down in March 2006 because of rat infestations. A Chinese takeaway in Kent was also closed because of this same problem. And in January this year, a primary school in Gwynedd, Wales, was closed for a week for specialist cleaning after a rat was found on its premises.

Rat-related complaints to local councils in 2005/6, the media reported, rose to 14 per cent as against that of the previous year. This prompted some rat experts to call on the UK governments to take a more coordinated approach to tackling what they felt was a menace.

Local authorities in Britain take serious actions against rat infestation because they consider it a serious threat to public health. These rodents, experts say, carry such viruses and parasites as leptospirosis, salmonella, toxoplasmosis and cryptosporidiosis. Doctors can tell better.

This is why civilized nations don’t joke with their environment. Cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness. Every night in Cardiff, motorised sweepers sweep the roads and major streets in the city. They trim their flowers and cut their grasses with machines. People are conscious of not littering the streets with garbage. There are bins in strategic places where one can put any waste item. At a particular day of the week, refuse collectors come to pick bags of refuse from the front of people’s houses. Recyclable refuse are put in green bags while non-recyclable ones are put in black bags. Those who mismanage their refuse disposal have the Environmental Protection Act of 1990 (sections 87 and 88) to contend with. Putting one’s bin bags outside on a wrong day could attract a fine of up to £110 (about N27, 500). And whenever council officials notice rats anywhere, they consider it an emergency situation even as pest controllers move in to arrest the situation.

Poor oyinbo! They panic because of a few rats here and there. They should come to Lagos, Port Harcourt, Aba, or any major city in Nigeria and see how these ubiquitous rodents have transformed from pests to pets living with humans. Some build their houses inside the upholstery chairs in sitting rooms. Some live inside cupboards and wardrobes. Some others struggle with cockroaches for food in the kitchen. I know a woman who visited his son-in-law in Lagos in 2005. She was used to small rats in the village. But when she saw the size of the ones in Lagos, she was so frightened that she cut short her visit and hastened back to the village. Whenever she sees her son-in-law now, she not only asks after his family, she also asks after his rats.

The ones you find in many restaurants and food stores are as big as cats. There are some that move beside the road in the night. Some religious experts (we have our own experts too) refer to some of these ones as witches and wizards going to their coven for a meeting. Bimpe, my neighbour in Lagos, once advised me to keep lemons at strategic places in my house as an antidote against such witches that might come in as rats.

One of the main reasons we have rats in abundance is the dirty lifestyle we live. Everywhere you turn in our major towns and cities, people drop refuse at random. Some block roads and drainages with their wastes. There is no conscious effort to live a clean life. And because rodents and insects like flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches thrive in dirty environments, they breed and hold parties in our houses.

The surprising thing is that we don’t seem to bother about the health risks this poses to us. We tend to pass off many diseases as malaria. But some of them could actually be diseases emanating from rodents. And because the majority of the people are too poor to seek adequate medical care, they die like fowls. The next thing we say is, that is the way God wants it.

Some citizens resort to buying rat poison. But this poses some health danger especially where there are children. Rats could eat the poison and infect food items with their poisoned mouths. In any case, some of the poisons are even fake as the more the mice eat them, the more they get fat and the more they multiply.

I am happy that at least, the Lagos State Waste Management Authority is doing something about the insanitary condition of the state. They are said to have started night sweeping in Lagos. This is a step in the right direction. The state Commissioner for Environment, Tunji Bello, was also reported to have said that the state was collaborating with many organisations in the world to convert wastes to useful purposes.

What remains to be done is to find a solution to the menace of rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes in the state. Can there be pest control measures in the state and elsewhere? Can they produce and distribute genuine but cheaper rat poisons to the people of the state? If these options fail, can they make arrangements to start catching and exporting these rodents to such places as Saudi Arabia where, it seems, some people rear them for business?

Agonies of Nigerian slaves

April 8, 2007

By Casmir Igbokwe

Published: Sunday, 8 April 2007

Rosemary is a 19-year-old Nigerian girl. At the bicentenary celebration of the abolition of slave trade in Cardiff on Sunday, 25 March, there was an account of her sorrowful life in what one may call a semi jungle. The story, in case you have not heard, was that she ran away from her stepmother on her 18th birthday. The woman had beaten her and burnt her thighs with hot iron for refusing to be circumcised.

Somehow, Rosemary (not her real name) found herself doing some menial jobs at a brothel just to survive. It was there she met a man who promised to send her to the UK to study and do some part-time work. She did get to the UK on a false passport. And she was forced to live with two men and a woman in a house. As she put it, “They made me watch pornographic films, telling me that’s why I was here. They raped me again and again and I was kept locked in a room 24 hours a day. I had to have sex with five to 10 men everyday, in the bed I slept in at night. If I disagreed or tried to refuse, they beat me up.” Rosemary managed to escape and went to the police. Now, she is free. But this freedom is punctuated by depression, fear, nightmares and hallucinations.

Thousands of young women from Africa and some other developing countries go through similar experiences every year. At the earlier-mentioned event to mark the abolition of slave trade, the plights of these women were highlighted. Saddened, the Chairperson of the African Community Centre, Wales, Mrs Uzo Iwobi, urged everybody to join hands and stamp out modern day slavery in all its ramifications. The First Minister for Wales, Mr Rhodri Morgan, implored his audience to guard against complacency and pledge their support to promoting equality, justice and dignity among all people. Some other government functionaries in the UK added their voices in condemning slavery in every form. One Toyin Agbetu spiced the celebrations with some comic relief. He told the Queen at a service at Westminster Abbey on 27 March to be ashamed of herself, and asked Prime Minister Tony Blair to apologise on behalf of their ancestors.

These are all good and commendable. But while we condemn and point a finger at some real and perceived slave masters, we must also realise that the other four fingers are pointing at us. In many parts of Igboland, for instance, some people treat their fellow citizens as Osu (outcast). These segregationists may not have used iron chains and horsewhips. But by their discriminatory attitude, they have chained and whipped the souls of their victims. These souls cry to heaven everyday for help.

Besides, there are employers who exploit the unemployment situation in the country to exploit their workers. Surely, many of them are facing economic difficulties because of the downturn in the economy. But does that justify the rape on workers rights as we witness in Nigeria today? Why will somebody work for six months or even one year in some cases without receiving any salary?

We also live in an age of ethnic and religious bondage. Or how else does one describe the pupils who killed an innocent teacher in Gombe on the flimsy excuse that she desecrated the Quran? They are nothing but slaves living in bondage. They sold their conscience, sold any human feeling in them and murdered Oluwatoyin Olusesan because she tried to stop them from cheating in an exam. In spite of the frequency of this type of zealotry in the North, the government has not done much to protect innocent citizens who live in constant fear in that part of the country.

In any case, most government functionaries don‘t seem to be bothered. All they are after now is to win elections. They woo voters with the promise of giving them fish, but eventually, they end up giving them scorpions. Nigeria has been too unfortunate to have this type of leaders in its history as a nation. And the hope of having a redeemer to set things right appears forlorn. A people who cannot afford two meals a day; a people who do not have access to potable water; citizens who die daily on death traps called roads are in worse form of slavery.

The landlord who arbitrarily increases house rent is a modern day slave master. In major cities such as Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, these shylocks make their houses unaffordable to a good number of people. Consequently, some tenants live under inhuman conditions in what Nigerians call face-me-I-face-you apartments. Some sleep under bridges. This, clearly, is living in bondage.

Also living in bondage are those housemaids who risk their lives everyday hawking in our streets. The housewives who send such girls out but send their own children to school are slavers. In advanced societies, such women usually face the full wrath of the law. Just for hitting her maid on the head with a mobile phone, supermodel, Naomi Campbell, was sentenced to a five-day community service in New York recently.

No less a slaver is a father who forces his under-aged daughter to marry a man old enough to be her father. This is common in most parts of Northern Nigeria. Some of these girls agonise everyday because they don’t have anybody to fight for them. Some end up having such diseases as vesico vaginal fistula. The society that forces this marriage on them later abandons them to their fate. One can cite many other examples.

The fact is that living in Nigeria today, for the majority of the people, has become a daily experience in slavery. For the corrupt ruling class, however, things are getting better. As the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, reportedly put it, “They (corrupt politicians) have private jets and houses all over the world. The system is working for them to remain there and every one of us is a slave.”

But, we have a choice to disentangle ourselves from this chain of slavery. We can do this by moving against every form of injustice we see around us. Recently, the UK media reported the story of a 29-year-old woman who fell off a garage roof after a night of binge drinking. Anna Mayers, who sustained injuries from the fall, decided that the best way to get justice was to sue her landlords. According to her, they should have warned her not to dance on the roof after drinking. This, perhaps, is laughable and amounts to taking freedom too far. But if Nigerians could imbibe some lessons in Mayers’ legal action in their dealings with their oppressors, things will surely get better.

Enjoy your Easter!